The Cleveland Cavaliers have been appointment viewing the entire year. It’s hard to look away from a soap opera with so many twists and turns.
Through all the drama between LeBron James and Isaiah Thomas and all deadline trades, Cleveland still entered the All-Star break as massive -345 favorites to win their division.
The spectacle hasn’t gone anywhere in the second half. J.R. Smith was suspended one game because he threw some soup at assistant coach Damon Jones, because of course he did. A thorough internet investigation eventually revealed it wasn’t French onion or clam chowder or broccoli cheddar (all great visuals), but instead chicken tortilla soup, which I think left all of us feeling a little empty. And left me kind of wanting some soup. I’m more of a chili man myself, but I dabble.
Anyway, the Cavs’ on-court performance has been lackluster — just 4-5 straight-up since the All-Star break. More striking are the team’s numbers against the spread, which really reflect the public expecting an improvement, and then not getting one. Per the database at BetLabs, Cleveland is 21-43-1 ATS this season (a dreadful 32.8%), and a truly incredible 11-38-1 as a favorite this year. 11-38-1!
For some context: The Thunder are the second-worst team in that role, and they have TWICE as many wins as a favorite than Cleveland does (OKC is 22-36 as a fave). Truly stunning. So, essentially, America keeps looking at Cleveland’s schedule, thinks a winning streak is about to unfold, and then gets kicked right in the teeth. The numbers don’t get better since the new acquisitions came in, either, as the Cavs have been a favorite in all but one game, and have put up a 2-6 record in that situation (they won outright as a dog against Denver).
Because of Cleveland’s poor performance ATS and on the court, the Pacers have caught the Cavs in the win column (0.5 games back overall). The Bucks also loom just 3.5 games back (they’ve had issues of their own trying to put a winning streak together).
You would think at some point bettors would lose confidence in Cleveland, and say enough is enough. And yet, despite all of that drama, and all of that losing, the Cavs’ odds to win the division have dropped by just 10 cents since before the All-Star break. Here’s the updated price table:
On the surface, this market move seems to be the equivalent of standing in a hurricane and telling everyone, “This is just a light breeze. I don’t really feel a thing.”
So just how vulnerable are the Cavs when it comes to the Central Division title? As with most NBA props and futures, the schedule is going to be our guide to answering that question. Here’s a quick breakdown for each team:
Cleveland Cavaliers (-335)
17 games remaining (9 road, 8 home; 8 against current playoff teams)
The team is a third of the way through its longest road trip of the season, but the good news is, the quality of the opposition doesn’t get much harder overall. The Cavs play at the Lakers (improving but still average at best), Phoenix (not really an NBA team), Portland (the toughest test of the entire stretch) and Chicago (not the toughest test of the entire stretch). After the road trip, they still have several games left against tanking teams: at home against Phoenix, at Brooklyn, home against the Mavericks. The sole reason for this price indifference may be found in the final week of the season, when Cleveland closes with a home-and-home against … the Knicks.
Indiana Pacers (+415)
16 games remaining (10 road, 6 home; 10 against current playoff teams)
Just when you think this team has a chance, this coming week on the schedule hits you right in the mouth: at Boston, at Philadelphia, vs. Toronto, at Washington. Yikes. Those looking for hope can point to the fact that the Pacers have split 1-1 with all four of those teams so far this season. Then you get to the later part of the schedule and see two games with the Warriors, games at Denver, at Toronto and at New Orleans, and you just throw up your hands. This is about as rough as it gets for a team. I give the Pacers essentially no chance.
Milwaukee Bucks (+950)
16 games remaining (10 road, 6 home; 6 against current playoff teams)
Now this gets a little more interesting. The Bucks have a whopping seven games left against tanking teams, which could essentially become walkovers. They also play the Clippers twice, in the middle of a brutal schedule spot for L.A. (playing at Milwaukee on the second night of a back-to-back, then again as part of a four-games-in-six-nights stretch, where the Clips fly from Toronto to L.A. the day before). This is a daunting task for Milwaukee, sitting 3.5 games back with 16 to play, but a 13-3 or 12-4 stretch is completely reasonable with a schedule like this.
Knowing all of this, I would give Cleveland at least a 75-80 percent chance of winning the division, despite all of the drama and flaws we’ve seen along the way, and that jibes with the -335 current price (an implied probability of 77 percent).
The interesting team, to me, is the Pacers, and this was not where I expected to land when I started this piece. They are +415 to win a division that I think they have a close-to-zero-percent chance of winning. They are also, in that same market, -525 NOT to win the division, an implied probability of 84 percent. Essentially ask yourself, “is the likelihood the Pacers win the division more or less than 16 percent?”
I came up with less, significantly less, given how many wins Milwaukee can pile up even if Cleveland continues its mediocre play, and the fact that I make Indiana an underdog in at least 10 of its remaining 16 games.
Many people look at -525 as a horrible price to lay, but if there’s value, there’s value, right? If you have similar odds on another site, but no “will NOT win division” options available, you can play both Cleveland and Milwaukee for equal “to win” amounts, and as long as the prices are similar (this is obviously very important), you set up a very similar payout.
What this all means is that as bettors, despite Cleveland knocking us down again, and again, and again over the course of the season, somehow we need to keep coming back for more. No wonder we’re such a grumpy bunch.
Top photo: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo; credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports